What role will Turkey play in the international military campaign against the Islamic State? This is perhaps the biggest question regarding the U.S.-led coalition's effort against militants in Iraq and Syria. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's claim that modern "Lawrences of Arabia" are actively trying to destabilize the Middle East offers some insight into the Turkish leadership's thoughts on this question. Nearly a century after the renowned British military intelligence officer played a key role in nurturing the 1916-18 Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire, Turkey's leaders find themselves at odds with both Western and Arab states — the latter far more than the former — regarding the future of the region.
In an Oct. 13 speech at Istanbul's Marmara University, Erdogan said, "Lawrence was an English spy in an Arab land. But currently, the spies are springing out from our own countries in the shape of a journalist, writer or even a terrorist. You can witness the new 'Lawrences' trying to set the region on fire." Erdogan decried the "artificially made" borders drawn by European powers in the Middle East as "the real cause of long-term pain and crises" in the region. "Turkey is the only country that can provide peace in the region. Turkey is the hope of the Middle Eastern people. Turkey can remove the barriers between Middle Eastern people not by changing physical borders, but by instilling hope and trust," he added.
Embedded within these words is the strategic situation Turkey faces today, amid the ongoing turmoil in the Arab world stemming from the rise of the Islamic State. Ironically, a hundred years after Britain worked with the Arabs to undermine Turkey's power, Washington now needs Ankara to assume regional leadership and manage the security situation on its southern flank. Though Turkey is indeed seeking this elevated role, it is also well aware of the massive challenges that come with such an undertaking. This awareness is why Ankara is still struggling to come up with a coherent strategy to deal with the Islamic State.
Though the West's stance toward Turkey has undergone a 180-degree shift, the United States and Europe remain involved in efforts to manage the region south of the Turkish border. The gap between Western and Turkish interests further complicates matters for Ankara, which will have to manage jihadists, Kurdish separatists and Syria's Iranian-backed leadership for a while before it can reap any benefits from its involvement. While much has changed in the West's attitude toward Turkey's role in the Arab world, the Arabs themselves remain a major problem for Ankara.
Different Visions for the Future
Today's Arabs pose an even bigger problem for Turkey than they did when they revolted against the Ottoman Empire. Led by Saudi Arabia, the Arab states (with the exception of Qatar) no longer act as Western proxies against the Turks. On the contrary, given their financial prowess and Western concerns regarding Iran, Riyadh and its Arab allies are trying to steer the West's efforts against the Islamic State toward toppling Syrian President Bashar al Assad.
Turkey, too, is seeking al Assad's ouster, with the goal of replacing him with a new order (in Syria and the wider region) that is under Turkey's influence. For now, the Arab states simply want to undermine the Iranian and Shiite position in Iraq and Syria, and thus theirs is a sectarian struggle.
But this is not the issue with which Turkey must contend. Arabs already struggling against the Iranians also oppose the idea of their region falling, once again, under Turkey's influence, even though they share its Sunni sect. Already reeling from the chaos of the Arab Spring, the Saudis and their Arab partners do not have a blueprint for the region. However, Turkey's master plan entails working with Republican Islamists, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, to stabilize the region. This is something the Arab monarchies and republican autocracies see as the biggest threat to their stability. Turkey will therefore find itself in conflict with the Arab powers long after it has managed to sort out its issues with the West. The one power Washington is counting on to play a dominant role in managing an increasingly fragmented Middle East will have a hard time leading the region's ethnic majority for many decades to come.